NEW YORK — Donald Trump reeled Sunday amid a sustained campaign of criticism by the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq and a rising outcry within his own party over his rough and racially charged dismissal of the couple.
The confrontation between the parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, and Trump has emerged as an unexpected and potentially pivotal flash point in the general election. Trump has plainly struggled to respond to the reproach of a military family who lost a son, and he has repeatedly answered the Khan family’s criticism with harsh and defensive rhetoric.
And Trump’s usual political tool kit has appeared to fail him. He earned no reprieve with his complaints that Khizr Khan had been unfair to him; on Sunday morning, he claimed on Twitter that Khizr Khan had “viciously attacked” him. Trump and his advisers tried repeatedly to change the subject to Islamic terrorism, to no avail.
Instead, Trump appeared to be caught in perhaps the biggest crisis of his campaign, rivaling the uproar in June after he attacked a federal judge, Gonzalo P. Curiel, over his “Mexican heritage.” By going after a military family and trafficking in ethnic stereotypes, Trump once again breached multiple norms of American politics, redoubling pressure on his fellow Republicans to choose between defending his remarks or rebuking their nominee.
Trump also risked reopening controversies related to religious tolerance and military service: His treatment of the Khans has already brought on a new wave of criticism of his proposal to ban Muslim immigration, as well as of his mockery of Senator John McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Democratic leaders and candidates for Congress began over the weekend to call on Republicans to disavow Trump. And the top two Republicans in Congress, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, signaled their strong disagreement with Trump, but stopped short of condemning him in blunt terms.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, sternly reprimanded Trump, saying at a church in Cleveland on Sunday morning that Trump had answered the Khan family’s sacrifice with disrespect for them and for American traditions of religious tolerance.
“Mr. Khan paid the ultimate sacrifice in his family, didn’t he?” Clinton said. “And what has he heard from Donald Trump? Nothing but insults, degrading comments about Muslims, a total misunderstanding of what made our country great.”
Clinton chastised Trump later in Ashland, Ohio, calling his comments part of a disturbing pattern. “He called Mexicans rapists and criminals,” Clinton said. “He said a federal judge was unqualified because he had Mexican heritage, someone born in the neighboring state of Indiana. He’s called women pigs. He’s mocked a reporter with a disability.”
Both Khizr and Ghazala Khan stiffened their denunciation of Trump on Sunday, saying that he lacked the moral character and basic empathy to be president. Khizr Khan, who addressed the Democratic National Convention on Thursday, said on “Meet the Press” on NBC that Trump had shown disrespect to his wife, and he accused Trump of running a campaign “of hatred, of derision, of dividing us.”
In a direct appeal to voters inclined to support Trump, Khizr Khan pleaded with them to reject his brand of politics.
Addressing himself to “patriotic Americans that would probably vote for Donald Trump,” Khizr Khan pleaded, “I appeal to them not to vote for hatred, not to vote for fear-mongering. Vote for unity. Vote for the goodness of this country.”
And Ghazala Khan, in an opinion article published in The Washington Post, rebuked Trump for suggesting that she had not been permitted to speak at the DNC. Ghazala Khan said she did not speak because she did not believe she could remain composed while talking about her son.
“All the world, all America, felt my pain. I am a Gold Star mother. Whoever saw me felt me in their heart,” Ghazala Khan wrote. She continued: “Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?”
Ghazala Khan said Trump was ignorant of Islam and criticized him for offering his business career as evidence that he had sacrificed for his country. “Donald Trump said he has made a lot of sacrifices,” Ghazala Khan said. “He doesn’t know what the word sacrifice means.”
It is too soon to say how severe the damage to Trump’s campaign might be, but his clash with the Khans has already entangled him in a self-destructive, dayslong argument with a pair of sympathetic accusers who are portraying him as a person of unredeemable callousness.
Several prominent Republicans have spoken out against Trump’s treatment of the Khans, calling his behavior outside the bounds of political discourse.
“Many Muslim Americans have served valiantly in our military, and made the ultimate sacrifice. Captain Khan was one such brave example,” Ryan said. “His sacrifice — and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan — should always be honored. Period.”